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Hidden Gems: The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

I hadn’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale movie since the mid ’90s, so when it showed up on PBS, I recorded it as a possible review for my Vintage Cable Box series, or for this collection of essays. It was on the DVR list going on about a year, and I still had no interest in re-watching the movie.

This week, I have the harmonic convergence of three movies; from all outward appearances, distinct pieces of entertainment, yet they all share the common theme of sexism and oppression of women. I’m a straight white male, so I couldn’t possibly understand the plight of women and since I am directly responsible for the mistreatment of all women, I figured these three movies would straighten my ass out.

First, we watched Room (not the fun, terrible 2003 Tommy Wiseau movie). Next up was The Invisible Man starring Elisabeth Moss. Finally, the triple feature ended with 1990’s The Handmaid’s Tale starring Natasha Richardson. The PBS presentation opens with an introduction by Columbia University Film Studies Professor Richard Peña, who describes the book and movie as “speculative fiction,” and really has nothing else to offer, except that the book was made into a Hulu television series.

The movie was not cut for time, but profanity (oddly with the exception of “god-damnit”) was deleted, and nudity was covered with a bizarre out-of-focus bubble. There’s not much to say about Room. It’s an unbelievable, intensely stupid story about an intensely stupid woman who has never watched a Die Hard movie nor an episode of MacGyver.

Room was nominated for four Academy Awards, and a win for charisma-free actress Brie Larson’s gut-wrenchingly cheesy (get it?) portrayal of an abused baked potato, or something. I kept planning her escape, but she did nothing for two hours. It’s a movie that, oddly, lacks empathy, understanding, or rudimentary intelligence. Maybe she is required to be stupid otherwise she wouldn’t have been abducted?

I thought about what music producer Steve Albini said when he first heard Nirvana’s demo material for In Utero. He called it “sprawling and aimless.” That’s the only way I can describe Room: sprawling and aimless, but in a terrible way. The Invisible Man wasn’t much better with Elisabeth Moss doing her patented horrified deer caught-in-headlights look for two hours solid.

She has a rich, genius, scientist abusive boyfriend. She escapes from said boyfriend’s high-tech mansion. He fakes his suicide and terrorizes her with his cloak of invisibility. Like Room, nothing about the movie made any sense. Is this the only way we can tell these kinds of stories? By removing all logic and accountability?

The only way to have watched The Handmaid’s Tale in 1990 (indeed even to read the source material) was to regard the story as “speculative” science fiction; not a clarion call or warning to movie audiences of things to come, but a virtually identical angle and attack of exploitation. The book is for dour feminists who refuse to shave their armpits.

The movie is for dirty little boys. It’s the perfect anti-capitalist plot written by a cynical, overeducated Canadian solipsist who could look over the border into a land of freedom and opportunity and muse (what if?) about what will topple the Statue of Liberty. Like every Canadian in the universe, she doesn’t get it.

In Canada, freedoms and rights are bought, sold, and traded because of an open-ended bill of rights and the theory of the “living document,” (she doesn’t seem to understand that the living document is what results in a future similar to The Handmaid’s Tale) and, as we know, Canadians (at least popular Canadians) don’t understand humor or fun. So how do we destroy the Statue of Liberty? Obvious. We take away her reproductive rights, silly rabbit!

Pop-culture literalists often take exception with an interpretation of The Handmaid’s Tale that does not address or acknowledge the idea that men either express a latent or prominent desire to control women and that men, as a whole, believe that a woman’s primary purpose is to have children. I’ve always seen it as more than that. Roger Ebert penned an interesting observation of the movie when it was released in March of 1990:

“I am not sure exactly what the movie is saying here. Is it a) that women are enslaved by their role as the bearers of children, or b) that poor and powerless women are carrying an unfair share of the burden by having all the kids while the rich women enjoy life? The movie seems equally angry that women have to have children at all, and that it is hard for them to have children now that men have mucked up the planet with their greedy schemes.”

The film adaptation of the novel is not the popular Hulu series, although the series does operate on similar narrative beats. Kate (Natasha Richardson) with her husband and child attempt to flee. Her husband is killed by Border Patrol, and her child wanders off. Kate is captured, examined and deemed to be fertile. She is taken to the Red Center where she is fed propaganda, draped in red robes resembling that of a nun, and taught to be a “handmaid.”

She is taken to the Commander’s (Robert Duvall) house where she will take part in the “Ceremony” in the hopes she will become pregnant. In short order, she learns the Commander is, most likely, sterile. Perhaps knowing this, the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), wants desperately to have a child, so she arranges a clandestine encounter between Kate and chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn).

The film moves at a blessedly brisk pace and, unlike the series, never stops to dwell on moments or messages. In the ’90s, we as viewers did not feel the need to be lectured to; indeed the movie is pure science fiction depicting a world as alien to us as Mars.

Underscoring the science fiction elements of the story are the lack of definable time and place. The movie takes place in an uncertain time, a not-too-distant future, and we’re not sure if Gilead is an incarnation of an occupied United States of America, although the flag looks mighty familiar.

Gilead is not nearly as violent and sadistic as portrayed in the Hulu series, and Duvall’s performance as the Commander elicits much more sympathy than Joseph Fiennes’, as does Dunaway compared to Yvonne Strahovski. I have to wonder why that is. You would think in a movie, the stakes would be raised, and behaviors would be much more exaggerated than a television show that requires a slow-burn.

The Handmaid’s Tale hinges on a pivotal performance by Natasha Richardson, fresh from another film in which she was also captured and tortured, Patty Hearst from director Paul Schrader. She’s quite good in this movie, but she’s a bit unbelievable in the role.

If Kate, or Offred, is to be the representation of “everywoman,” she should be as plain (“average”) as possible. Elisabeth Moss’ strength in the role of June/Offred is that she looks like any woman you would come across in the street. Natasha Richardson is exceptionally beautiful and statuesque, a work of art.

Aidan Quinn, as the handsome and enigmatic Nick, is the best bit of casting in the movie, but he has too few scenes and is never permitted to be so complicated as to overshadow any other character, even the skittish Moira (Elizabeth McGovern), who is consigned to the brothel Jezebel’s after she is caught in an escape attempt.

From what I was able to gather, Harold Pinter had extraordinary difficulties adapting the book to screenplay format. This may have been due to the rambling first-person saga of the unreliable narrator in Kate/Offred. When Pinter gave up on the script (but still received full credit), director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) replacing Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Atwood, and Natasha Richardson re-wrote Pinter to make Kate/Offred the center of the story as she was in the book.

Oddly, the hopeful “heroic” ending of Nick ultimately rescuing Kate after she murders the Commander and spiriting her away to Mayday-controlled territory undermines Kate’s struggles in the preceding hour and forty minutes. This isn’t a story about a rescue. It’s a story about slavery in the modern age.

The film’s production design by Tom Walsh is striking on a $13 million budget. Colleen Atwood (Edward ScissorhandsGattaca) designed the costumes. All the women are “color-coded.” Who you are is what you wear. The Aunts wear schmata and long skirts – they look like schoolteachers. The Wives wear cartoon blue regency dresses.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Natasha Richardson, Aidan Quinn, 1990, (c) Cinecon International

The Handmaids are draped in blood red habits and gowns. The Marthas wear gray rompers with white aprons. This is a color-coded universe, and this is when I note similarities and references to orthodoxy of all kinds; a cathartic mixture of Catholicism, Muslim, Judaism, and Scientology. It’s also an all-White universe, and there is brief mention of the “Children of Ham” (read: Black people) being ferried away from Gilead “back to Africa,” but the movie has no political statement to make.

Instead, the story is presented as slice-of-life. Schlöndorff showcases the atrocity as a precocious normality; the consequence of ’80s excess as it blossoms into ’90s apathy, and because this is a movie and not a television show, there is no prolonged, pointless sadism and torture. We’ve seen in the last few years people adapting to disturbing abnormalities. Perhaps the central enemy of Atwood’s thesis is organized religion and not the evil that men do because of it. God damn! Blame Canada!


David Lawler has written for Film Threat, VHS Rewind, Second Union, and his own blog, Misadventures in BlissVille. Lawler has produced several podcasts including That Twilighty Show About That Zone, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar (with co-host David Anderson), EQ Lawler/Saltz (with Alex Saltz), and Upstairs at Froelich's (with co-host John Froelich).

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